Billions of cell phones have been produced in the last few decades. When we purchase a new phone, most of use don’t trade-in the old one or sell it to a place like Gazelle. Sure, a small fraction of those old phones are recycled. All of their tiny components are extracted and add up to tons of precious metals and other materials that can be used in the production of new phones. However, it’s still a very small amount of the massive volume of cell phones that are tucked away somewhere, each year. So, how can we make these cell phones less disposable and more valuable to all of us? Could we use the storage and smart capabilities of millions of old cell phones to create battery systems that could power our homes or our cars?
Why would we want to do it?
First of all, why not. Phones are readily available and are being replaced every few years. The supply of old cell phones is only going to continue to grow. Secondly, with millions of old cell phones becoming available every year, it could be very cheap. However, there’s one other very important reason. That is, the future of energy is going to look very different. We are moving from a utility grid that is dominated by central power(Coal, Gas, Oil, Nuclear, Hydro Power) to distributed power(Solar, Wind, Micro Turbines, Fuel Cells, Battery Arrays). Just like there was a move from mainframe computers to personal computers, a similar shift is happening in the power industry. At some point in the future, everyone will have a battery bank in their home or business. This change is putting the power, literally, in our hands.
The benefits are numerous. Such as, the independence from the rising prices by the utility companies, the ability to buy and store energy when it’s cheap, protection from the issues with the aging power grid, energy sharing among neighbors, communities or entire towns, guaranteed up-time, readily available backup power during outages, and the freedom to create and store our own energy. All of this has the potential to provide us with more reliable energy and substantial energy savings.
Can it be done?
How much electricity is used each time we turn on a light switch? When we open our fridge, what kind of energy is being consumed by the refrigerator’s cooling compressor, the cooling fan, and even the little light inside? How much energy are we really using each year?…
According to the US Energy Information Administration, the average home uses approximately 11,000 kWh of energy per year. The largest usages of home energy are for air conditioning, heating and lighting. Electrical energy usage is now 13 times more than it was in 1950, and will probably continue to increase in the next few decades.
If the average cell phone provides 7 wh of energy, then it would take 143,000 phones to provide enough energy storage to power our homes each month. However, if we divide that number by 30 days in the month, then we would need approximately 4800 old cell phones to provide the daily power to the average home. That amount of cell phones would take up a space that’s 10 feet x 0.5 feet x 8 feet. Ok, that’s not unreasonable. That could fit along the wall of a room, the garage or a basement.
Why start small?
IBM Research India has an ongoing project using recycled batteries as home power sources in poorer countries. Using thrown away lithium-ion batteries from laptops, researchers say that 70 percent of those discarded batteries still have enough energy to run low power LED lighting for several hours per day for close to a year.
They’re thinking, just not big enough… Given that laptop batteries and cell phone batteries are now somewhat comparable, it is not hard to imagine that refurbished and re-purposed cell phone batteries, could have the potential of storing enough electricity to power entire homes and cars. Apple alone, sells over 200 million new iPhones, every year and with Americans trading in, throwing away or just holding onto, over 150 million cell phones every two years, there seems to be quite an inventory of possible energy sources for home and vehicle power. Want to find out what people are doing with their old cell phones, now? Read our article: Give your Old Cell Phone a Reason to Live!
According to Edmunds.Com the amount of kilowatts per hour to run a typical production electric car 100 miles would be 29 kWh. If a smartphone holds 7 wh of power, then it would take approximately 4200 fully charged smartphone batteries to drive that hundred miles, depending on how fast you go and what terrain you are driving on. That many cell phones would cover an area 9 feet x 0.5 feet x 8 feet. Almost the same size as the battery bank that you would need to power your house. If configured right, that amount of cell phones could be designed into the chassis or possibly the trunk of a car.
How much your utility charges for energy is also a factor. With the average utility costing 12 cents per kWh, a 100 mile trip will cost an average of $3.48. That sounds like a great deal in comparison to that same trip in a gas powered car that could cost many times more than that. If you charge your battery or home battery system in off peak hours, you can probably save an additional 10%, or more.
However, the innovative and exciting way to take advantage of this old cell phone battery system would be to power it by a solar panel system on your roof or property. This would give you complete energy freedom and allow you to produce energy from the sun to power your old cell phone battery bank. Of course you would need to factor in the cost of your solar panel system, but this cost should be outweighed by all the benefits of controlling your own power production and being free of the rising costs from the utility company.
Smart Phones make Power Smarter
If the cost of recycled or re-purposed cell phone batteries is lower, or in some cases free, having a modular type of power system made of old phone batteries could be a bargain. The modular nature of this system for a home or an electric vehicle would make it easy to replace a dead unit on the fly. With an ample supply of used or refurbished cell phones, replacement for these battery power arrays would be relatively inexpensive, and would be considered a form of green energy from re-purposed electronics.
Because cell phone batteries have smart capabilities, these units could monitor their own usage and discharge, sending information to an app to report modules that are getting weak or unusable. This smart battery array would provide the owner with low management costs due to the predictive maintenance capabilities of the system.
We’re Old Cell Phone Hoarders
Another impactful and immediate reason to reuse old cell phone batteries is to solve the problem of the millions upon millions of discarded and ignored phones just sitting in boxes, drawers and landfills. Estimates are that less than 10 percent of all discarded cell phones are turned in for refurbishing or re-purposing. This massive amount of e-waste has the potential to cause environmental issues, but it also locks up the expensive to obtain and vital materials that can be reused to make new cell phones. These resources are finite, and for now the effect of trashing old cell phones or hoarding them, denies their use forever. With replacements expanding yearly, this makes old cell phone batteries a significant source of energy for our home and car battery systems.
We can do this. But…
It would take 4200-4800 cell phone batteries each, to run the average house and one car. Next comes other questions. How much will something like that cost? What would it weigh? Are there technical issues like the amount heat that this many cell phones would generate? Will it be competitive in comparison to other battery powered home units and cars?
We can surmise the size of an array of cell phone batteries will be larger than the size of a home battery unit, like Elon Musk’s Tesla Powerwall that connects into both the electric grid, and solar panels on the roof of a home or business. This unit can be charged by the solar panels or power from the utility grid, as it automatically switches between charge and supply modes. It starts at a price around $3000 for a 6.4 kWh system. Tesla’s Powerwall is about one quarter of the size of our proposed old cell phone battery bank, so that would need to be considered for the comparisons.
As for using this type of cell phone battery system in a car, there are many other challenges. It would seem that converting a gas powered car to an electric powered car would take a significant amount of custom modifications. That, would likely increase the cost of the conversion to a price that exceeds the current cost of purchasing a new electric vehicle, such as the Chevy Volt or Nissan Leaf. However, if the conversion process could be simplified, then this could become an option for adding electric power to millions of cars that are currently on the road.
Is anyone else asking the question?…
With hundreds of millions and potentially billions of old cell phones that will be available in the coming years, it seems like this could be developed into a real opportunity to use a resource that’s currently being completely wasted. Sure, challenges would exist in creating this type of battery system, but there has to be an innovator out there who is asking the question: Could we use Old Cell Phones to Power our Homes…our Cars?
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